The United States government has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) approved the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident and long-time critic of the de facto Saudi ruler. But President Joe Biden has stopped short of holding him personally accountable.
The CIA report had been shelved by Biden’s predecessor – Donald Trump – who had bragged to another Washington Post journalist – Bob Woodward – that he helped cover up the gruesome execution to save MbS’ “a–” adding, “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”
On the 2020 presidential campaign trail, democratic candidate Biden stated categorically that he, unlike Trump, would “make them [Saudis] pay the price and make them the pariahs that they are,” while laying blame for the murder directly at the feet of the Saudi Crown Prince. Now President Biden has sung a decisively different tune, with his administration claiming “there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” while singing odes to “diplomacy” and “global engagement.”
In other words, Biden has allowed MbS to get away with murder!
In other words, Biden has allowed MbS to get away with murder!
The decision not to penalize the Crown Prince came after weeks of internal debate among Biden’s newly formed national security team, according to the New York Times. They concluded “there was no way to formally bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the United States or to weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies.”
Expectedly, human rights organizations have called the Biden administration’s failure to impose sanctions or other meaningful punitive measures on MbS, personally, “unconscionable.” From their perspectives, it undermines US credibility and gives a green light to other dictators and despots that it’s totally fine to extrajudicially murder journalists that cause them discomfort.
I share their frustrations, not only as a journalist but also as someone who was hopeful the new President would be everything that Donald Trump is not, particularly in regard to transparency, accountability, and justice. However, it’s important to consider the effectiveness and consequences of the options that are at Biden’s disposal.
For the United States, dealing with blood-soaked dictators is an inescapable reality when faced with an array of security challenges.
The first thing to recognize is that 35-year-old MbS will soon be King and ruler of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, for close to five decades. For the United States, dealing with blood-soaked dictators is an inescapable reality when faced with an array of security challenges, including an expansionist China, a militarily aggressive Russia, and various transnational terrorist organizations.
It’s also worth noting that the United States’ grand strategy seeks an exit from the Middle East, both militarily and diplomatically, to refocus its resources and assets in Asia Pacific, a region that will soon be responsible for 50 percent of global GDP. A permanent fracture in the US-Saudi relationship would stymie that objective, as the US would then have to contend against China and Russia’s aims of dominance in the Middle East.
When Biden called King Salman, instead of his son the Crown Prince, to deliver details of the CIA’s findings, it sprang hope in some corners that the US aimed to delegitimize MbS and then pressure, by words or other means, the monarchy into replacing the designated heir to the throne. Undoubtedly, the move would be well received within large corners of the Kingdom, given its 15,000 princes are extremely scared of MbS, according to a former CIA operations official. They know what he is capable of. Yet, such a plot would be hard to carry out, since the dissident aggrieved princes are equally terrified of MbS uncovering any plans to oust him.
Retired Army General and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a national security oriented blog, “If the intent is some form of regime change, that is a very heavy policy call, and [US] policy-makers should deliberate this very carefully and thoughtfully to include contingency off-ramps if things go wrong.”
Regime change has not been a successful strategy for the United States . . . so we can discard that as a plausible option.
Regime change has not been a successful strategy for the United States elsewhere in the past and there’s no reason to believe it would produce better results for the Biden administration in Saudi Arabia, so we can discard that as a plausible option.
As Commander-in-Chief, Biden controls the flow of US manufactured weapons into the Kingdom and he has already imposed a freeze on arm sales to Saudi Arabia and ended US support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Still, as Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian born journalist who was the target of a Saudi plot against his life in 2019, rightly observes:
“If you stop weapon sales to MbS, he can still obtain weapons from countries such as China and Russia; if you take away his ability to conduct operations in Yemen, he can still inflame a long-standing civil war using his significant disinformation capabilities; if you sanction him, it will be a blow to his power and prestige but it will not remove him from power.”
The best path forward for the Biden administration is to “facilitate the rise of internal checks on MbS.”
The best path forward for the Biden administration, according to el-Baghdadi, is to “facilitate the rise of internal checks on MbS” by using the United States’ “tremendous leverage with Saudi Arabia to secure the release of prisoners of conscience and lifting of travel bans.” The US should also monitor closely if MbS arrests any newly released prisoners, “especially if they dare take to Twitter to express themselves freely.”
“A good future that honors Jamal’s vision isn’t one where MbS is sanctioned but still oppressive,” writes el-Baghdadi. “A good future is one where MbS is internally checked by free Saudis who are able to demand accountability from their government. To aim for anything less is to betray Jamal and his legacy.”
If the Biden administration is serious about finding “more effective ways to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” then it must help empower the Saudi people to hold their dictator in check.